If Stanley Kubrick were to have directed a martial arts movie, you might get something like The Raid 2. It’s an Indonesian movie by a Welsh director, sequel to 2011 surprise hit The Raid: Redemption. It’s OK if you haven’t seen the first – it’s like seeing the second Godfather without seeing the first. The two build on each other, but they’re each their own animal.
The first Raid followed an Indonesian SWAT team’s assault on a drug lord’s tenement building. It was brimming with enough gunplay, explosions, and martial arts to put it alongside Raiders of the Lost Ark and Die Hard as one of the best action movies ever filmed.
The second Raid follows the first movie’s hero, Rama (Iko Uwais). It is an incredible action movie, but it’s an even better gangster thriller. Rama is convinced to go undercover, get arrested, and befriend the incarcerated son of a Japanese gangster who owns half of the capital Jakarta. Needless to say, few things go as planned. Rama begins discovering that being an undercover officer doesn’t mean he’s a wrench in the gangster’s works. He’s merely additional leverage in the business relationship between the gangs and Jakarta’s police.
There are a range of decisions that make the fight scenes some of the most effective ever put to screen. Director Gareth Evans builds his film using old-fashioned suspense techniques, and his martial arts scenes – using the Indonesian style Silat – are more than just impressive choreographic sequences. He makes every fight a plot point, communicating through action the kind of relationships and character history other films explain in dialogue.
Evans shoots in long, unbroken takes, not unlike Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity, Children of Men). Where Cuaron’s style reflects a character’s perspective, Evans’s style anticipates a characters intent. It can be hard to communicate how someone thinks in a fight – martial artists train to slow down a situation in their heads, so a response is entirely mental. The physical action that follows is just muscle memory. You learn to plan several moves ahead. It’s incredibly difficult to translate this in a full-speed action movie to a movie theater full of people, but Evans’s approach comes the closest. It offers a unique glimpse into the strategy martial artists employ, which allows you not just to marvel at the athleticism on display, but to understand the chess match that goes on behind a fight.
These longer takes demand incredible feats from choreographers and actors alike. The more complicated the stunts – as in an early prison riot in a mud pit – the longer his shots are likely to be. There are unbroken fight sequences that made my jaw drop at their audacity and ambition.
No matter how easily a character might be described – Hammer Girl (Julie Estelle) is deaf and uses hammers as weapons, for instance – Evans always reveals a visual detail or line of dialogue that gives us a brief window into each henchman’s soul. It transforms characters who would be one-note villains in other films into complex figures. When Rama defeats a henchman, his own moment of heroic triumph also feels like the tragic ending to somebody else’s story.
This is how a martial arts movie laden with fight scenes speaks against violence, and this is one of the most violent movies you’ll ever see. The fight choreography may be impressive, but time and again it communicates mutually assured destruction and the toll such violence takes not just on the body, but the soul as well.
A vignette in the middle of the film, during which we break away from Rama, tells the story of Prakoso (Yayan Ruhian). He is a lifelong assassin who lives on the street and gives all his earnings to his estranged wife and child. His story is a heartbreaking half-hour that could stand as its own short film, culminates in an incredible fight scene, and serves as the keystone to the rest of the plot.
Prakoso’s story is also an opportunity to condense one of The Raid 2‘s underlying themes: the plight of the everyday laborer. This is the 95% of everyone – American, Indonesian, Japanese, whoever they might be – who just try to live their lives well, go to work, and do right by their families. Prakoso is an assassin, but these others are not, and they occur in scene after scene, constantly apologizing to gangsters for not groveling well enough or serving them fast enough. It’s a bitter message from a country rife with organized gangs peddling drugs, sex, and violence. It’s obviously important for the makers of The Raid 2 to communicate to the rest of the world – and to their own citizens – that crime and corruption may be what they endure, but it’s not what defines who they are as a country or a people.
This is an exciting action movie, an accomplished martial arts film, and an epic, intelligent gangster tale with a lot to say. There are treats in here for aficionados of any of those genres, and I haven’t even hit on how beautifully The Raid 2 is filmed, or how lush its design is. Be aware this is an exceptionally hard-R rated movie for its violence and a moment of sexuality.